Open minds needed to support offenders

Circles of Support are vital
Circles of Support are vital

It is a subject many people feel uncomfortable talking about - crimes which touch an emotional nerve.

The emphasis, in recent years, has been for a spotlight to be shone on sex offenders living in our communities.

With high profile campaigns including the push for “Sarah’s Law” - known officially as the child sex offender disclosure scheme (CSOD) and rolled out nationwide in 2011 - there has been a clamour for disclosure.

But just how do you handle a person released into the community having served time for a sexual offence?

Government figures show there are 1,864 registered sex offenders living in Lancashire - the second highest number per head in the UK

Seaside towns like Blackpool help push up those figures as Margaret O’Brien from the Cumbria Reducing Offending Partnership Trust (CROPT) is only too happy to explain.

She said: “Seaside areas tend to have cheap accomodation.

“There’s a lot of seasonal work, a more transitory population.

“There’s maybe fewer questions asked about employment.

“As a result there’s probably a higher concentration of offenders living in towns like Blackpool.

“It’s somewhere they can have a little more anonimity, where they can escape their past.”

Margaret’s organisation is one of the few groups in the UK working with former offenders.

It was launched in Carlisle but is quickly expanding in the north of England.

And on the Fylde coast there is strong demand for services.

Margaret said: “We have a waiting list of ex-offenders released from prison or on community orders requiring inclusion into our project on the Fylde coast.

“But we simply don’t have the volunteers.

“People can be put off because of the nature of the work. But it really is rewarding and ultimately it’s about reducing re-offending and reducing risk to the community.”

“Most people are not going to welcome a paedophile into their local community but the reality is that they do live there.

“This project serves that community by trying to reduce risk.

“Simply getting angry and rallying against the sentencing process and the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system does little to help and support victims. The only way to reduce risk is to start by trying to understand where this behaviour is coming from and address the issues surrounding it.”

CROPT runs a scheme called Circles of Support and Accountability, an intensive programme providing support for offenders who have moved on from the prison and probation system.

The focus of the volunteer led programme is as much on ensuring offenders are reminded of their crime and the impact on the community as they are supported back into society.

It is an intensive process, a group of up to five volunteers supporting just one ‘core member’.

And CROPT is desperate for people to come forward for such roles in and around Blackpool.

Margaret explained: “It is usually four or five people.

“We call them circles of support and accountability because we want them to think about what they have done, to keep the public safe and the core user safe. People struggle when they are released. Often they come out without any support, they are vulnerable, they don’t confront what has happened and they go on to re-offend.

“Our circles provide local support, local knowledge, the first steps to helping people back into the community.

“I know if I’m protecting the community, if my work with the offender is stopping them from re-offending it worth its weight in gold.

“One of the key factors is isolation, it is one of the real issues faced.

“Many people are released from prison, they are shunned by their family.

“They have spent a long time being monitored, in the system and all of a sudden they are cut adrift.

“That is where the risk can begin.”

A former probation officer, Margaret knows a one size fits all approach cannot and will not work.

“Every case is unique,” she said.

“We aren’t coming at it as volunteers, you have to be professional.

“You can bring your own life skills, your local knowledge.

“But you have to treat each case, each person differently.

“Our current volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some are from faith based organisations, others are students, ex-probation workers, teachers.

“Each brings something different to the table.” One Lancashire volunteer spoke to The Gazette.

She wished to remain anonymous in order not to be identified in her community.

But the former criminology student insisted the programme was rewarding.

She said: “We are talking about things that are not nice.

“I don’t take that home with me.

“You can’t take any personal prejudice, any preconceived ideas.

“You have to be open minded, prepared to discuss things.

“It’s not about going in and being confrontational, you have to build that trust with them.”

But she is all too aware of the stigma attached to the role.

She said: “Potential volunteers might be worried by what people would think of them. That is the big thing.

“It’s an understandable reaction but we have to change that mindset.”

Margaret said: “People might want to bury their heads about this, think it will go away. It is a need of society.”

“But people are living in our communities and they need help and support and through that we can reduce the risk of them offending again.”

CROPT has ambitious plans to establish a network of as many as 20 volunteers on the Fylde coast, capable of supporting up to five core users at any time.